29 March 2010

CHLOE IN THE AFTERNOON

For the second time this year (Shutter Island was the first), we come across a film with a twist ending that's so terrifically obvious that you almost can't help but assume the filmmakers meant for us to figure it out beforehand; and at the same time, it's rather difficult to actually discuss how the film works without reference to the twist. But I shall make a good-faith effort.

The movie in question is Chloe, the latest by Canada's Atom Egoyan, one of modern cinema's harshest psychological interrogators. A remake of Anne Fontaine's 2003 French film Nathalie (which I haven't seen), Chloe is first about the increasingly disaffected marriage of the Stewarts, Catherine (Julianne Moore) and David (Liam Neeson), and only incidentally about the titular character, a classy prostitute played by Amanda Seyfried. Briefly, the situation is thus: Catherine is certain that David is cheating on her, and after a chance encounter in the restroom of a swanky restaurant, she hires Chloe to seduce her husband and return with a full report. One report quickly turns into several reports, as Catherine finds herself both devastated by Chloe's casual news about David's infidelity, and aroused by the girl's equally casual description of the various sex acts she and the cheating man perform. Things get a lot darker than that before the thing ends; and if you've read enough reviews you've probably picked up the idea that the thing ends with a bit of a rough thud. I can't really disagree with that: it's a bit unpleasantly rushed and it takes a wildly clichéd turn that's mostly redeemed thanks to the outstanding performances by the two women. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Though it is a very sexual movie, boasting a jarringly frank sex scene that represents the exact moment that the first part of the film turns into the second part, Chloe is not at all an erotic film, nor is it meant to be; and this is what seems to have tripped up the vast majority of American critics who are so keen on pulling out the easy and tremendously inaccurate comparison between Egoyan's film and an early-'90s Skinemax late night special. Mostly, it's about Catherine's head; and the quicker the viewer realises that Chloe lied about ever meeting David, and is making up the details of their dalliances because she believes (correctly) that Catherine gets off on hearing them, the likelier the viewer is to be able to appreciate the film, and Moore's amazingly subtle exposition of a woman who refuses to acknowledge the existence of her own desires.

Erin Cressida Wilson's script (the first time Egoyan has directed a film that he didn't write) isn't necessarily subtle or nuanced about setting this up: the first time we see Catherine, she's explaining in very patient terms how the orgasm is a mechanical process (she plays a gynecologist, which may or may not have icky overtones, depending on how you read the last half-hour of the film). Nor does the rest of the film's dialogue win it any prizes for being terribly sly or clever: there's a lot of people explaining in small words exactly what they're thinking, especially in the last 20 minutes, where the film really does start to go off the rails a bit - or maybe, that's when it well and truly gets on the rails, and those rails don't lead to anywhere we want to go. It's a very tidy conclusion that the film takes for itself, and baldly expressed (there is one particular slow-motion shot, you'll know it when you see it, that is so laughably bad that it seems impossible that a gifted filmmaker like Egoyan could have been present on set the day it was filmed), and if we believe it at all, it's because Seyfried gives her all to make the character work.

Chloe is one of those movies in which a young actress tries to prove that she is a serious artist by taking off all of her clothes; it is testament to Seyfried's commitment that her eyes, and whatever secrets they mask, are always her most arresting feature. Those of us lucky enough to have spotted her in Mean Girls or the TV show Veronica Mars have known for years that she was a talent to look out for, and she's proved it in this film, where she has to play a character who necessarily doesn't exactly have a personality, and do it in a way that suggests the actual person hiding inside the persona named "Chloe" (that may or may not be her name; we never really do find out). Seyfried's role is given the brunt of the unbelievable and preposterous melodrama in the last act, and it must be confessed, that she can't absolutely save it; but she comes much closer than most 24-year-old actresses I can name would have likely done.

Both Seyfried and Moore are tasked with the unenviable job of playing two women: the version the script tells us about, and the version we only see in light of the twist. The pair of actresses are incredibly successful in this endeavor, and if Chloe only worked as a performance showcase, that would still be reason enough to justify its existence. But Egoyan is a better filmmaker than that, and despite the odd clinker of a scene here or there (one moment, in which Catherine masturbates while thinking of Chloe and David, is grossly overdetermined; but there's little besides that and the slow-motion shot that I'd call "bad"), his handling of the material is both removed and elegant. With his regular cinematographer Paul Sarossy, he frames the story as a series of boxes, and boxes-within-boxes (especially the ambitious and mostly successful motif of characters appearing in mirrors). There are many glass walls in this film, locking the characters into one version of a fish tank or another; it at once suggests the inside/outside dichotomy that is the very heart of the film's psychological investigation, while also presenting the characters as trapped, usually because of their own devices. It is thus a cruel movie; but not an unforgiving one, and though the pat ending is irritating and suggests an erotic thriller that couldn't be farther removed from Egoyan's arch visuals, it can do nothing to completely overturn the uncanny mood created by the first hour.

8/10

6 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Very thought provoking review Tim. I was warily anticipating this, and as I said elsewhere I wasn't too keen on Seyfried (who I like) as a minx, but your review does have my interest piqued. Nothing about Liam, or did I miss it?

Simon said...

This is the exact opposite of every other review I've been reading lately, which of course, renews my interest. Good on you.

Mike Lippert said...

I usually don't read reviews before writing and posting my own as to not be influenced but I read yours and it's quite good, and I agree that the film is good but what I dislike about what seems like all the reviews is this focus on the so-called "twist." You mention Shutter Island which did have a twist but in that case it was just something you'd expect from the genre. However here, it isn't really a twist because Egoyan gives it away in the first scene if you listen carefully and you can see him also reeling the story in so that it doesn't become Fatal Attraction lite which a lot of critics have wrongly pegged it as. That's why, to me, it's not even a twist, it's just a furthering of what Egoyan does so well: showing us characters and then putting our knowledge of them into question by taking it away and giving something else: because the narrative isn't complex like it usually is in Egoyan's work, critics just up and decided that the movie itself wasn't complex as a result.

Tim said...

Mike- I agree with pretty much every word you wrote, and I hope I didn't give the other impression. Anyone paying attention should be able to guess the "twist" from the opening monologue, and I think that's entirely deliberate.

For me, all I dislike about the ending isn't that I think the "twist" is cheap, but that what Chloe does after the restaurant scene is a bit tawdrier than the rest of the movie. And again, that awful slow-mo shot.

Isabellarockstar said...

Having seen the film last night, much anticipated on my part primarily because of it's location being in Toronto.
I am conflicted by whether I would say I liked it or not. I found that for a relatively short film, it felt like it dragged on in parts. I thought more than once, "haven't we been here already?"
What I appreciate more about your review than the others I've read, you focused less on the amount of nudity and yes, we get to see Amanda and Julianne's breasts...yes... over and over again. But thank you for not stopping there. I agree, it isn't about eroticism, there are many underlying themes and I suppose, that is partly why I'm conflicted about whether I liked it or not. I suppose I was entertained, curious, found it thought provoking. But yes, I too, lost interest after the slow-motion shot. What a disappointment in fact.
I would recommend seeing it, but perhaps in the comfort of your living room where you can pause during the parts of entertainment and fast forward during slow-motion. ;)
Toronto Jen

gardenerman said...

As far as the ending goes, it may be more genuine than you think. Following is a brief synopsis of Freud's published case history "Homosexuality in a Woman."
This is a study on the work of displacement in love.

A girl has been raised knowing her father loves her more than he loves her mother. The girl glories in this. However, when the girl is a teenager her mother announces she is pregnant. This news infuriates the girl who feels betrayed by her father and promptly tries to make amends with her mother, then falls in love with an older woman. The older woman at first likes the attention but soon grows annoyed because the girl is interfering with her heterosexual love life. Finally the older woman decides to break off the relationship with the girl who despairs and throws herself in front of a carriage. She nearly dies, whereupon the older woman relents and allows the girl to be her regular companion with the agreement that she not try to drive off the woman’s fiancé.